My students often had trouble with Melville's "Bartleby" because they could not understand why Bartleby acts the way he does; they also were not sure why the narrator doesn't throw him out immediately. Therefore, it might be best to tackle these two problems of motivation at the beginning. The story is difficult because it marks a transition between fabulistic stories, in which characters are two-dimensional representations, and realistic stories, in which they are presented "as-if" they were real. As a result, Bartleby seems to be a fabulistic character, while the narrator seems realistic. There is no way Bartleby can answer the question, "what is the matter with you?" because Bartleby has no matter; that is, he can only react as a two-dimensional representation of passive rebellion.
The one place in the story when he comes closest to answering the question is when he has decided to do no more copying at all and the narrator asks him why. Bartleby, standing looking out the window at the blank wall, says, "Can you not see the reason for yourself?" The narrator, an "as-if-real" character thinks there is something wrong with Bartleby's eyes. Bartleby, a two-dimensional figure, is referring to the metaphoric representation of his problem--the blank wall. However, it makes no sense to tell an "as-if-real" person that the reason one has decided to do nothing is because of a wall. To do so is to be accused of madness (as Bartleby indeed has been accused of), for it means to mistake a mere object in the world (the wall) for what one has taken the object to mean (meaninglessnes, nothingness, blankness, loneliness, isolation).
Although the narrator cannot identify with Bartleby's metaphoric mistake, he feels the power of Bartleby's loneliness and need. He knows that the only cure for Bartleby's isolation is brotherly love, but he is unable to grant that love on Bartleby's terms--that is, that he completely lose himself, give up everything. For the metaphoric character, it is all or nothing at all; the "as-if-real" character, however, feels he must exist in the practical world. Melville's story is ambiguous and mysterious because it deals with this most basic human need, and because, like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," it is both fabulistic and realistic at once. The wall is a "dead letter" for Bartleby because it signifies "nothing," and "nothing" is that which he cannot bear. Bartleby is a "dead letter" for the narrator, because, although he has intuitions about who or what Bartleby is, he cannot "go all the way" into that realm of madness, the metaphoric, and the sacred that Bartleby inhabits; he can only tell the story over and over, each time trying to understand.
By making "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" the recollections of first-person narrators, Poe and Melville make the combination of romance/story conventions and the rules of realism explicit. Both Bartleby and Roderick seem to be more functions of the story than "as if" real characters. Although our basic question about both is "what is the matter with them?" indeed they have no matter. One narrator says he cannot connect Usher's expression with any idea of simple humanity; the other says there is nothing ordinarily human about Bartleby. One narrator continually reiterates his puzzlement and his failure to understand Usher; the other narrator continually tries to get Bartleby to follow the rules of common sense and common usage. Instead of being caught within legend or allegory, as is Ichabod and Brown, both Usher and Bartleby are caught within that primary process phenomenon whereby they cannot distinguish between the map and the territory; they both make the metaphoric mistake of projecting their own subjectivity on to the external world and then responding to it as if it were external.
In "Fall of the House of Usher," this mistake centers on Roderick as the ultimate romantic artist who desires to cut himself off from external reality and live within the realm of pure imagination, although he fears the loss of self such an ultimate gesture would inevitably entail. His belief that the house has sentience because of the particular organization of its parts is a metaphor for the romantic aesthetic of organic unity. In a sense, Usher does live within the artwork, which is both the house and the obsession he has created. Whereas the fabula of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is indeed Usher's aesthetic obsession, the discourse is the teller's account of the transformation of Usher into a figure of imagination who ultimately vanishes into pure subjectivity.
In "Bartleby," instead of a realistic character entering into the aesthetic realm of primary process, as is the case in "Usher," the movement is reversed, and an obsessed aesthetic figure invades the realm of secondary process reality, realistically represented as the practical and prudent world of the law office on wall street. We can no more ask what is the matter with Bartleby than we can of Usher. We cannot know what he is thinking, for he is thinking nothing; he simply is the obsessed embodiment of his own obsession. For Bartleby, there is no distinction between the wall as signifier and the wall as signified; the wall is the reason he "prefers not to." The only answer to the question of what the wall is and what it signifies is, or course, ironically, "nothing." The wall is a dead letter to Bartleby, just as Bartleby himself becomes a dead letter to the narrator. Again, whereas the fabula here is Bartleby's obsession, the discourse is the narrator's impossible attempt to recuperate a metaphoric figure into the realm of secondary process thinking.
The recollection of the "story" of Roderick and Bartleby by the two narrators makes possible in discourse what was not possible in the story itself. Although the story in each case focuses on the narrators trying to understand primary process figures by secondary process means, the discourse in each understands the figures in the only possible way to understand them--by rhetorical structure and by metaphor. What is "realistic" about such early short stories as "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby" is what Erich Heller says is new about nineteenth-century realism generally; that is, "the passion for understanding, the desire for rational appropriation, the driving force toward the expropriation of the mystery." These two stories are dramatizations of just that effort at appropriation.
The problem is that the tellers, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner at the beginning of the century and Conrad's Marlowe at the end, can only tell the story, are unable to reduce it to conceptual content; however, they can tell the story in such a way that makes it different from the mere story events--by narrating a story that in itself is about a character caught by the demands of discourse. The short story is thus transformed into a tissue of repetitions, parallels, and metaphoric motif; that is to say, paradigmatic structure emerges out of the mere syntagmatic succession or sequence of events because the world of the story itself is seemingly determined by the obsession of the central, function-bound character.
Mimetic characters, such as the narrators in these two stories, do not make a story realistic if the situations they confront evade their power to incorporate them within the expectations of the familiar, natural world. The realistic impulse creates a realistic work only when the impulse succeeds in convincing the reader that the phenomenon described has been, or can be, naturally, socially or psychologically incorporated. If the mystery is solved by placing the phenomena within the framework of the natural, the social, or the psychological, then the realistic succeeds. However, if the knowledge arrived at is inchoate, metaphysical, aesthetic; that is, not satisfactorily solved by the natural, social, or psychological, the only resolution possible is an aesthetic one. The thematized interrelationship between metonymic "as if" real characters and metaphoric "mythic" reality I have been outlining here has, in my opinion, characterized the development of the short story up to the present day.